An interview with Niall Williams

04 February 2015

As well as giving us a chance to read (or reread) some of the best works of literature from the past forty years, the advent of the Picador Classic series also seemed the perfect opportunity to ask the authors some big questions – about life and literature, their current obsessions and how times have changed.

Niall Williams was born in 1958 and lives in Kiltumper, Ireland, with his wife Christine and their two children. He is the author of several novels, including Four Letters of Love, which was sold in over twenty countries and was an international bestseller. As The Times put it: ‘Occasionally you have the good fortune to read a novel which you devour as if it were a thriller, want to last forever because each sentence sings, but finally put down with great whoops of joy. Read Four Letters of Love, and believe in angels’.

What was the last thing you wrote in your notebook?

Although you’ve learned the music, you haven’t got the tune.

Where in the world do you find yourself returning to and why?

The sea at Doughmore, County Clare. It blows opens your soul.

Tell us your favourite poem.

I’m not sure I believe in favourites. The poets I return to most often are Yeats and Heaney and Eliot’s Four Quartets.

What are you currently obsessed with?

How to stay alive in body and spirit.

What are you going to read next?

‘Lila’ by Marilynne Robinson.

Which writing do you find yourself returning to and why?

Faulkner, Dickens, Marquez, Yeats, Heaney, because greatness takes your breath, raises the standard, and, after you feel like giving up, it makes you try harder.

What happens to us when we die?

Been trying to answer this question for the past four years. See History of the Rain.

Which other author would you most like to have for dinner and why?

I never eat authors. I like to have salmon for dinner.

Print or ebook?

Print. Paper.  Ink. Dust.

What’s your favourite film?

See idea of favourites above. But if pressed, Lawrence of Arabia.

And your favourite music or music genre?

As above, Van Morrison.

What's your strongest childhood memory?

The smell on my mother’s pillow.

Tell us the first thing you do in the morning.

Open my eyes. Think: I’m still alive. 

And the last thing you do at night.

Close my eyes. Think: I’m still alive.

Favourite book?

There’s no such thing. If there was there’d be no need for libraries, publishing, or tomorrow.

One book you wish you had written.

There are too many.  

Three things you would want on a desert island.

A boat, a book, Christine Breen.

What continues to inspire you?

Living here and now in this place among these people and these books and this music.

What was your greatest piece of luck?

Three pieces; finding Chris. Then Deirdre. Then Joseph.

What advice would you give your 15 or 20 year old self?

It’ll be all right.

What’s the most unusual job you’ve had?

Barrowing turf for a 60 year old turfcutter who was like a virtuoso of the slean.

If your collection of books was ravaged by a fire and you could save only one, what would it be, and why?

I would never save only one. Under my oxters I’d have Pickwick and David Copperfield; inside my shirt I’d get One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in a Time of Cholera and Don Quixote and Absalom, Absalom and Light in August and all of Yeats and all of Heaney. Dylan Thomas, Marilynne Robinson, Jane Austen and the rest would have to take their chances in my trousers. It’s a fire, after all.

>>READ AN EXTRACT FROM FOUR LETTERS OF LOVE

Four Letters of LoveFour Letters of Love (Picador Classic edition) is introduced by John Hurt.